Why the Memory of the Holocaust is a Gift for German Culture
January 27, 2021 marks the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration/extermination camp by the Soviet Red Army. It is a day of commemoration and the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. A day on which Germany honors the pain of the victims. Some say: Yet another day of being reminded. Which is an attitude I take offense at.
Typically I blog about cross-cultural topics, not specifically on German history. You’ll see the connection between the two by the end of this article. Bear with me as I am trying to make a rather unconventional point here, which you may have guessed after reading the headline.
As a German whose connection to the “Third Reich” and the Nazi regime is through his grandparents and their generation, I grew up with a guilt complex. Not personal guilt. Rather a feeling of a collective, national guilt. For most of my life I struggled with this part of my national identity. I felt ashamed for our national history. I felt as if, as a nation, we are still carrying the guilt of mass murder. Of course I merely projected my personal experience on some 80 million other Germans. But it is probably safe to assume that there are a few people who feel similarly.
It has been taking me many years to come to terms with this. For most of my life I felt burdened by this inherited guilt. It held me back. Like driving a car with the parking brake on. Today I accept the memory of the Holocaust as an obligation — even more: as a gift. Not one of those gifts you can’t wait to unwrap. More like a package you have been entrusted with, that you need to protect.
However, it saddens and worries me to learn how the gift is increasigly disregarded. Almost 90 percent of Jewish people living in the EU say anti-Semitism in their country has been increasing. One in 20 Europeans has never heard of the Holocaust, according to a survey. Those numbers are alarming in many countries, and they are shameful for Germany and Austria.
For me it is troubling to see news reports about how many Germans feel that 76 years after the liberation of Auschwitz Germany has “heard enough” about the Holocaust. According to surveys in recent years, eight out of ten Germans would like to “put behind” the history of the persecution of Jews. More than half say it is time to “wipe the slate clean.” I think these numbers show why it is so important to keep the memory alive. This attitude of “enough already” is still based on guilt.
Yes, the Holocaust is an extremely painful legacy. And in my opinion this legacy has nothing to do with feeling guilty and everything with accepting our culture’s obligation to remind the world of what happened and of what humans are capable of. It is everyone’s choice to let commemoration bother them. I, for my part, gladly accept to be reminded and to commemorate. I am very much in favor of keeping the memory alive. Never forget. Never again!
It would trouble me, though, if Germany developed an attitude which implies that there could be an end to remembrance, or that at some point we will have finished a process.
One of my mentors and friends, who happens to be Jewish and who is deeply involved in the Jewish-German dialog, once told me: By trying (and failing) to kill all the Jews, Hitler and the Nazi regime wanted to forever separate Germany and the people of Jewish faith. It turns out that today the Holocaust forever tied the destiny of our people.
I am grateful for the miracle of reconciliation and I do not take it for granted. In accepting our obligation to commemorate and to honor the victims and their pain, Germans today and for always can be a reuniting voice working towards making amends, towards creating peace. We can and we should be torch bearers for intercultural understanding.
This is the gift that history has given us.
For many years I have been enjoying my work as an interculturalist and building my business. Once it became clear to me why I do what I do, my mission solidified: I strongly believe that all conflicts between people can be resolved, if we understand each other’s cultures — our own, and the ones which are foreign to us. We can create peace, if we become agents of cultural understanding. This is now part of my company’s mission.
Once we, the descendants of the Nazi mass murderers, move past the guilt and honor the obligation, we will realize what enormous moral responsibility we have. The German people have been handed a task: We can be one of the most credible warning voices for humanity. We can legitimately tell the world: This is what happens if you go down that dark path.
Also, fellow Germans, while we live up to our responsibility and to this task let’s make sure we tone down our sometimes moralizing, smart-ass tone.
This is our history. Let’s own it. It makes us stronger. And it will release the parking brake.
Trust your process.
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